He's not quite beefy enough to qualify as a Praetorian Guard, but Alex is doing his best to look tough as part of the Socialist Workers Party's (SWP) security detail. Or at least as tough as you can look standing amid the humor section inside Coral Gables' Books & Books. "The right wing is going to be out in force," one party member had melodramatically warned Kulchur earlier that day, and distracting Simpsons cartoon collections or not, Alex was going to be ready.
"When I saw them at the airport, I was very disappointed," Piero Gleijeses quips of the half-dozen SWP members that have been "protecting" the bespectacled Johns Hopkins professor since his December 7 arrival in Miami for his Books & Books reading. "They weren't very big." Motioning toward the undergraduate-looking Alex, now standing impassively just behind him, he adds wryly: "Left-wing intellectuals just aren't very intimidating."
Alex, however, isn't willing to play along. Asked if he's finding his current party duties a bit boring, he replies coolly: "Nothing the party does is boring."
Kulchur suggests to Gleijeses that having a cadre of die-hard Fidelistas as his Miami escort may not do wonders for his standing as a respected scholar of American foreign policy in Latin America. Is this really the most prudent company for a professor with lecturing credits at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute and the U.S. Air Force Academy? The jovial tone immediately disappears from Gleijeses's voice.
"You get protection wherever you can," he snaps. "After all the threatening phone calls and e-mails I received, my wife didn't want me to come here at all. I really was scared for my life -- I begged these people to receive me at the airport."
The cause of all that animus was Gleijeses's role as point man in securing a visa for Cuban revolutionary leader Victor Dreke and his November book tour. Along with several other Washington, D.C. academics and Pathfinder Press, the publishing arm of the SWP (and the imprint for Dreke's new memoirs, From the Escambray to the Congo: In the Whirlwind of the Cuban Revolution), Gleijeses helped land Dreke a month's worth of speaking dates on college campuses from Brown to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. It's a move that has made Gleijeses public enemy number one in the eyes of a particularly vocal segment of the Cuban-exile community.
"People called me saying, 'Victor Dreke has blood on his hands,' or 'Dreke is a war criminal -- how can you be involved with him?'" he remembers with a dismissive sigh. As Castro's rule lurched leftward in late 1959, some disaffected allies resumed their armed struggle from the Escambray mountain range. Dreke's command of government soldiers against them is particularly galling to many exiles -- but not Gleijeses, who insists declassified CIA reports prove that Dreke never committed any human rights atrocities.
"There are too many people in Miami who believe we shouldn't be able to listen to a different point of view," Gleijeses says. Citing Dreke's subsequent journey to the Congo to fight alongside Che Guevara there, and then leading Cuban soldiers in Guinea Bissau, Gleijeses explains, "I'm certainly full of admiration for what Cuban troops did abroad ... I'm not a Marxist-Leninist, but I am, overall, sympathetic to the Cuban revolution." That may not be a popular stance in South Florida, he concedes, which is precisely why he came here: "It's important to break the wall of silence."
Silence was not the operative word at Dreke's November 13 Florida International University (FIU) appearance. As Dreke touted the achievements of the Cuban revolution to a standing-room-only crowd, several protesters shouting asesino, murderer, were ejected by police and hustled outside to join the several hundred demonstrators there.
A month later, much of el exilio is still reeling. FIU president Mitch Maidique may have issued a statement defending his faculty's "academic freedom to invite whomever they see fit," but that didn't stop several other FIU administrators from publicly bemoaning the SWP's stewardship and security team at the Dreke event as "embarrassing" and "absolutely unacceptable."
Indeed the past decade has seen numerous canceled visits by Cuban musicians, actresses, and artists, all in response to public controversy over their alleged complicity with the Cuban government. Just last week, Miami commissioner Tomas Regalado -- whose civic career seems single-mindedly dedicated to keeping the ACLU in business -- managed to help spike an AIDS charity dinner, simply because it may have featured the Cuban chanteuse Rosita Fornés among its guests.
Yet here was Dreke, a figure proud to call himself Che Guevara's right-hand man, defiantly holding court at FIU, even joking to his audience that he was "legally in the United States, though it would appear that some would like to take that away."
The SWP's own newspaper, The Militant, exulted over the resultant exile teeth-gnashing. "This is a national disaster," the paper quoted one caller to Spanish-language talk radio. "There should have been 10,000 Cubans there -- there were very few of us," Vigilia Mambisa's Laura Villanova noted on Telemundo's Channel 51. "Where is the exile community?"
Crowing of its Dreke-led victory over the "ultrarightists," The Militant declared that "Miami's wealthy rulers" were "reduced to appealing to the State Department to deny visas to such visitors before they can get to Miami."
Of course, one doesn't have to be an, ahem, "wealthy ruler" to wonder just how Dreke did obtain a visa -- even Piero Gleijeses admits he's surprised it came through. Thanks to lengthier background checks on Cuban nationals in the wake of September 11, musicians such as the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Los Van Van, and Chucho Valdés have all had to cancel American tours after being unable to secure visas in time for their booked concert dates. An application process that once took several weeks now often takes several months. Justifying the delays, State Department spokesman Stuart Patt told the San Francisco Chronicle that "most performers are legitimate, but the fact is that maybe some people who claim to be performers are security risks."
Got that? Acclaimed jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, having toured America countless times, is nonetheless prevented from flying to Los Angeles to personally accept his Latin Grammy Award, lest he turn out to be a "security risk." Meanwhile a veteran commando such as Dreke is given carte blanche to road-trip around America and detail his exploits in the service of worldwide guerrilla movements. Certainly one can support Dreke's right to speak while still hoping his visa request was given at least a cursory glance before being approved.
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The Miami Herald cited an anonymous government source as saying that had the State Department known about Dreke's background, he would have been barred entry. Which only heightens the incompetence on display: Instructors at fifteen different schools in seven different states all knew that a Cuban revolutionary was arriving to speak about his combat experiences around the globe. But the crack staff at the State Department was clueless. And given that -- unlike Dreke -- most of al Qaeda's members aren't helpful enough to publish their autobiographies before filling out their visa applications, one can only shudder at the thought of what currently passes for federal "intelligence gathering."
Back at Books & Books, the SWP's Mary Ann Schmidt was critical of a fellow party member ready to start celebrating. Two sympathetic University of Miami students had been enlisted to invite a noted Cuban official to their campus -- an academic milieu that has been notoriously cool to any notions of a discourse with the island. "The real test is if they can pull it off at U of M," Schmidt muttered, correcting her comrade.
These are strange days when it falls to the Socialist Workers Party, a creepy faction of "worker-Bolsheviks," to remind us of not only how unresolved Miami's battles over civil liberties remain, but also of how woefully unprepared our so-called homeland defense is -- on the eve of war, no less.